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RealScreen Realities: Fewer Risks, Fewer Rewards

By Patricia Aufderheide

With a $1,000 entry ticket, RealScreen Summit—the annual international conference on "the business of factual programming," held in February in Washington, DC—is an event that most independent documentary filmmakers will have to evaluate carefully before committing their credit cards.

Why do they come?

Veteran producer Jennifer Lawson comes in order to "affirm my understanding of the marketplace"—to get a reality check and to pick up news.

Ben Phelan of Denver Center Media, which produces programs oriented to the public TV market, comes to pitch. "It's convenient," he says. "You can have all your meetings in one place."

For Larry Confino of Synapse Productions, it's about community. "Independent producers work in silence most of the time. Here, buyers and sellers get together in a more relaxed environment. It's not just pitch, pitch, pitch."

And for Shane Seggar, who has just finished his first documentary, Le Afi Ua Mu: The Fire Is Burning, about Samoan gangs in Los Angeles, he's learning about the business. Pacific Islanders in Communications, one of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Minority Consortia, assisted his trip. This year, RealScreen had more information on American public TV, which pleased Cara Mertes, executive director of public TV strand P.O.V.: "This is the first year I've recommended to emerging producers within public TV's orbit that they attend." 

Not everyone paid the full ticket. Anna Reid Jhirad, a veteran writer but novice producer, traded volunteer services for attendance. (Another option is a discount from US Independents, an organization that facilitates indie access to trade events.) "It's important for them to find a way for the little guy to get in more easily," she said.

Indeed, about half the attendees were first-timers. Most came from the US and Canada, with 10 percent coming from Europe and a handful from locations ranging from Chile to Australia.

Keynoters spoke nobly of the need to make important, socially aware documentaries in spite of dire conditions. John Willis, new VP of national programming at WGBH, spoofed what he called the "eternal crisis, docs on death row" theme that emerges whenever doc producers get together. Then he proceeded to decry the "McDoc," the loss of risk-taking and the starvation of US public TV. He cheerfully counseled groundless optimism: "Cast your bread upon the waters; you never know, it might come back as smoked salmon sandwiches." Robert Wussler, president of Ted Turner Pictures, wondered where the public interest requirement for broadcasters had gone, noted with alarm the lack of leadership for social-issue programming at television networks, and called for documentarians to become business-savvy in order to get their issues on the air.

Panels, meanwhile, brought the nuts-and-bolts realities home. US demographics, attendees learned, demonstrate a narrow range for risk-taking and social issues. The top-rated cable documentaries last year were Cathouse, Autopsy and Taxicab Confessions (all HBO). The median age of PBS viewers has aged five years in a decade, to 57.2. National Geographic is adapting to the changing environment with series such as Taboo, Extreme Planet and a recent success, Animals of the NFL. In the UK, recent hits include Facelifts from Hell  and What Not to Wear. For Bruce Goerlich, research director at advertising firm MediaVest USA, the business of television was about "eyeballs and tonnage [buying ad time in bulk]."

Opportunities in Europe are not abundant, according to panelists. In fact, on one panel of international broadcasters, ostensibly there to explain windows of opportunity, two of the five told the overwhelmingly American audience that there was no space for US documentarians on their channels. Three said US indie product showed up only rarely. On a panel called "Breaking into the UK," lecturer Alex Graham, CEO of production company Wall to Wall, strongly discouraged US producers from entering that market, with convincing demographic information.

Documentarians face a shrinking pool of international distribution because of mergers, said panelists. They also, according to Jan Rofekamp and Diana Holtzberg of Films Transit, face ever-increasing competition on the festival circuit. This year, for instance, Sundance Film Festival received 1,300 applications for the 18 available documentary competition slots. 

Public television continues to be a critically important port of entry for independent producers, as was evident in a panel devoted to different strands. That doesn't make it a simple process, as attendees learned while trying to master the acronym-rich environment of public TV.

Facilitating sales encounters was a major theme of the summit. A pitch session featuring four winners of a pitching contest drew a rapt crowd. A panel of programmers frankly, if kindly, rated the pitches according to the sales-presentation skill of the presenters. The winner was Steve Anderson's reality-show proposal (spend $25,000 in 25 hours), presented with audacity and simple visual aids. Small group and face-to-face sessions with programmers were also a popular feature. Attendees also got a powerful, and probably familiar, message from many panelists about selling their ideas: personal relationships are key, and personal investment in the idea is critical.

"I need to hear the passion you have for making this project," said Margaret Drain of WGBH's American Experience. "That's what really makes it real for me."


Pat Aufderheide is professor and director of the Center for Social Media at American University in Washington, DC.